The Great Irish Hope?

How amateur boxing matches -- and a bunch of mostly black and Latino fighters -- are resurrecting Irish culture in the Sunset

Mullen's style is unorthodox, to say the least, but his dancing around the ring keeps him out of Maguire's reach. His jab has improved over the two years he's been training, but Dan Maguire barks at him to keep his hands up, and his head tucked. "Relax your breathing," Dan tells Mullen between rounds, as Mullen spits blood and water into a ringside funnel, which is joined by a long tube to a bucket on the floor. "How are you feeling?"

"Tired."

"Well, this is the third round, that's when you get your wind back." Dan Maguire, ever attentive, smears Vaseline on the fighters' faces, a coating that protects the dry and battered skin from further glove burns.

Halfway through the third round, Tom Maguire uncoils his bulky arms and unleashes a vicious combination to Mullen's head -- end of sparring session. As Pat leaves the ring, his head swimming, he says, "I don't want to overdo it. I want to fight that night."

Mullen heads upstairs to shower, and Tom Maguire, who has a day job as a brokerage manager at Schwab, removes his gloves and tape, his face flushed from the exertion and direct hits. Swaggering over to one of the vending machines, the man who brought boxing back to the Sunset pops in a couple of quarters. "Oh, man," he says, his broad shoulders sagging, his friendly features crumbling in exhaustion. "I've got to have a 50-cent Hamm's after getting hit in the head that many times."


Given the centuries-old love affair between pugilism and the Emerald Isle, it's a real wonder that no other Irish cultural centers in the United States, to Maguire's knowledge, have tried hosting amateur boxing nights. (Several have called requesting his fight-arranging services; so far, he's politely declined.) In the early 1800s, when the Irish began immigrating to the United States in vast numbers -- driven from their homeland by religious prejudice, political oppression, and a devastating potato famine -- they brought their enthusiasm for the sport with them, and helped make San Francisco one of the country's premier boxing towns.

The Irish were among the first white settlers of California, arriving in the late 18th century, but in the mid-1800s, when gold was discovered in the Sierra Nevada mountains (much of it by Irish-American miners), they became a lasting cultural force in San Francisco. Because the city bloomed so quickly after the Gold Rush, with no time to entrench the often-racist social hierarchies of established East Coast cities, the Irish rose from the working class to assume powerful, invulnerable positions in government, commerce, and industry. With no preordained ghettos to confine them, the Irish spread to all corners of the city, eventually forming the backbone of neighborhoods that became the Mission and Sunset districts. In 1867, San Francisco elected an Irishman, Frank McCoppin, as its ninth mayor, years before any other major American city -- including Irish-American strongholds such as Boston, New York, and Chicago -- followed suit.

By 1870, one-third of the city's 150,000 residents were Irish, one in three Irish men owned property, and many of the Irish who found gold in the mountains poured their newfound riches into San Francisco's first agricultural industries. As small-scale farming, livestock, and dairy enterprises thrived, so did the Irish-American businessmen who set up banks to fund them. James Phelan, who immigrated to New York from the county of Laois in Ireland, arrived in San Francisco on the heels of the Gold Rush and established the state's first national bank. Many other Irish entrepreneurs of the era -- their names now immortalized on streets, parks, and buildings -- saw their fortunes rise along with the city's, and Tom Hayes, an immigrant from County Cork who owned land where the present-day Civic Center stands, dreamed up the first public transportation in the city: the rail line from Market Street to Mission Dolores.

At around this same time, San Francisco was establishing itself as a hotbed for boxing -- especially in the amateur ranks. By the turn of the century, almost every working-class neighborhood had a warehouse hosting Friday night fights, and bouts were also common in shipyards, on barges, in parks, and at racetracks. The apex of the city's boxing scene arrived in the 1950s and '60s, when Kezar Stadium was the place to see fights; in 1955, it hosted Rocky Marciano's ninth-round knockout of Don Cockell, a battering that earned Marciano the world heavyweight title.

But the undisputed champion of the San Francisco boxing scene was Newman's Gym, on the corner of Eddy and Leavenworth streets in the Tenderloin, which for more than 60 years served as the training venue of choice for the world's greatest boxers: Marciano, Jack Dempsey, Jim Jeffries (winner of four heavyweight titles in San Francisco between 1901 and 1904, all of them knockouts), Joe Louis, Sugar Ray Robinson, Muhammad Ali, George Foreman. It also served as a second home for Jerry Maxwell, who trained there in the early 1960s.

"It had two rings up top, one downstairs, and all the premier fighters of the day would train there," say Maxwell wistfully. "At any given time, you'd have half a dozen contenders and champs coming through there, 50 people training, and sometimes they'd charge people just to watch. Sparring matches in that gym would be like championship bouts today."

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